Henry County opened a three-touchdown lead and hung on to beat Thomson 28-7 at the Brickyard on Friday night in the opening round of the state Class AAA playoffs.
After a regular season in which Thomson’s 509 points scored ranked the fourth-most in GHSA history, the Bulldogs’ offense continued to struggle at the worst time. Thomson managed only one touchdown in the Region 3-AAA title game at home against Burke County last week and one more against the Warhawks on Friday.
Friday night’s biggest obstacles proved to be repeated penalties that kept negating plays including a kickoff return touchdown.
“It just seemed like every time we tried to get some momentum going there was a penalty,” said Thomson first-year coach Milan Turner. “I can’t tell you how many times we were first-and-20 or second-and-20. Man, that’s hard to overcome. Ten yards was going to be tough enough against them, but 15 or 20 was just too much for us.”
Henry County broke the first-quarter deadlock on its third possession when quarterback Chris Moody dropped back to pass then took off up the right sideline for a 14-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
Late in the second, Thomson nearly made a goal-line stand before Moody finally sneaked it into the end zone on fourth down to put the Warhawks up 14-0.
That’s when the frustration really started. On the ensuing kickoff, Torrie Battle returned it for a touchdown before the officials flagged Thomson for a block in the back at the Henry County 7-yard line. Thomson was assessed a personal foul because the official ran into the Henry County band and claimed Thomson was responsible for controlling it.
After a long deliberation under an on-going chorus of boos, the Bulldogs were backed up to the 32-yard line. A high shotgun snap on the first play backed Thomson to midfield before Joshua Jones could fall on the loose ball, ruining the scoring opportunity.
“It would have been huge,” said Turner. “We had a chance to sneak back into and you saw what happened.”
The Bulldogs seemed to get a huge break on the ensuing punt when a Henry County player appeared to have touched the ball before it rolled dead inside the 5 and Thomson jumped on it. But when the side judge correctly signaled it Henry County’s ball (a video replay showed he jumped over it), it prompted an outburst from a player that drew another unsportsmanlike flag.
The riled up Brickyard crowd didn’t stopped booing until the officials left the field and the band started playing at halftime.
Thomson’s comeback hopes suffered a quick hit in the third quarter when Joshua Jones’ short pass was picked off by Quran Fite and returned 25 yards for a touchdown and a 21-0 lead with 7:11 left in the period.
The Bulldogs finally got the benefit of the officiating on the next possession, taking advantage of three consecutive personal fouls by Henry County to get set up at the Warhawks’ 17. From there, Joshua Jones lobbed a perfect pass to Battle on a flag pattern to trim the deficit to 21-7 with more than 18 minutes still remaining.
But Thomson couldn’t muster enough opportunities and Henry County sealed it with a 40-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-16 with 4:15 remaining.
The Bulldogs drove to the Warhawks’ 4 with two minutes left but Jones’ lob toward Ryan Kelly to the right side was picked off at the goal-line and returned 75 yards to the Thomson 25.
“It’s kind of hard to explain. Our kids fought and played hard though. Just a turnover or penalty at the wrong time and it’s hard to overcome. I’d like to think we’re a little bit better team than that at this time of year, but you can’t change it.”
Henry County had never won a playoff game on the road, losing in the first round each of the last two season to Thomasville (44-0) and Baldwin (14-7). The Warhawks have reached the playoffs five consecutive seasons after playing in only one postseason game since 1954.
While the records might have suggested a mismatch in the first football meeting between the two schools, Henry County’s 7-4 mark is a little misleading. The Warhawks have lost only three games on the field this season, all to playoff teams with a combined three losses between them. Henry County was forced to forfeit its season-opening win against Ola for using ineligible players.
Thomson finished the season 9-2 after the back-to-back losses, well short of the state title that Turner coached Emanuel County Institute to in 2007.
“We really felt like we had a chance to do a little bit more,” Turner said. “We ran into a heckuva team last week against Burke County and we really need things to start out good tonight and be positive and we really didn’t get that.”